Ideas cannot digest reality

October 7, 2012

The title is a statement by Jean Paul Sartre that heads a section in Chapter 7 of James C. Scott’s wonderful book “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed”, Yale University Press, 1998. One may ask what a book published as part of the Yale Agrarian Studies has to do with electronic government or even government but as Scott states on page 6 in the Introduction it is “a case against an imperial or hegemonic planning mentality that excludes the necessary role of local knowledge and know-how”. Despite all the promises to the contrary this is still the behaviour of most governments and a majority of politicians. The book looks at many and varied examples of central planning including the USSR, Brasilia along with providing an ecological view of agricultural methods that haven’t worked and explaining why, but is as appropriate to those working in ICT, policy or politics as directly in the environment.

If nothing else and even if they can’t be bothered to read the 357 pages of the book I would ask those considering any project to make a note of the four ‘rules of thumb’ stated in the Conclusion on page 345 – take small steps, favour reversibility, plan on surprises and plan on human inventiveness.